Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity by Brooks D. Simpson

Am I like Grant? Here’s what Simpson says about Grant in his preface:

But, more than anything else, I found Grant’s ability to keep moving on, to overcome obstacles, to prevail somehow, some way, testament to some inner strength that weathered periods of difficulty, depression, and self-doubt.

I’d like to think I’m like Grant. Here’s another:

Once, the colonel approached Grant with a requisition order authorizing large expenditures. Briefly reviewing the report, the general gave his approval, catching the colonel by surprise. Might the general want to ponder the matter a little longer? Was he sure he was right? Grant looked up. “No, I am not,” he responded; “but in war anything is better than indecision. We must decide. If I am wrong, we shall soon find it out, and can do the other thing. But not to decide wastes both time and money, and may ruin everything.”

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Sin Killer by Larry McMurtry

The latest audio book. I liked it. The story was engaging, but not quite as moralistic as Boone’s Lick. It is a bit of an homage to Cooper, and there is more than a little Natty Bumpoo in Jim Snow, the Sin Killer, also known at the Raven Brave. He’s a frontiersman, a rover of the Great Plains in the 1820s, and gets tangled up with a steamboat full a vacationing English heading north up the Missouri. So tangled that he ends up married to one, Tasmin Berrybender, and has to rescue her and her family members from hostile Indians, frigid temperatures and their own foolishness. At one point Tasmin mentions that different people have different beliefs, and the Sin Killer slaps her, shouting at her that there is only one true God and that she better hush up about that theology crap. He’s their guide in more ways than one, much like the Pathfinder was, but it’s a role that’s not as fully developed as it could be.

The book is also a lot less romantic and a lot more vulgar than anything you’d read in Cooper. Fornication is a regular occurrence amongst English gentry and their hired help, women captured by Indians are beaten, raped and killed, and even the Sin Killer himself and his Berrybender bride regularly engage in “good long ruts.” Hey, Chingachgook. Cover Uncas’ eyes. He’s probably too young to being seeing this stuff.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A History of New York by Washington Irving

For my part I have not so bad an opinion of mankind as many of my brother philosophers. I do not think poor human nature so sorry a piece of workmanship as they would make it out to be; and as far as I have observed, I am fully satisfied that man, if left to himself, would about as readily go right as wrong. It is only this eternally sounding in his ears that it is his duty to go right that makes him go the very reverse. The noble independence of his nature revolts at this intolerable tyranny of law and the perpetual interference of officious morality which is ever besetting his path with finger posts and directions to “keep to the right, as the law directs”; and like a spirited urchin, he turned directly contrary, and gallops through mud and mire, over hedges and ditches, merely to show that he is a lad of spirit and out of his leading strings.

That, needless to say, is from A History of New York by Washington Irving. Sometimes a difficult read, but rich with prose and worth a few interesting quotes.

Hesoid divides mankind into three classes—those who think for themselves, those who let others think for them, and those who will neither do one nor the other. The second class, however, comprises the great mass of society, and hence is the origin of party, by which is meant a large body of people, some few of whom think and all the rest talk. The former, who are the leaders, marshal out and discipline the latter, teaching them what they must approve—what they must hoot at—what they must say—whom they must support—but, above all, whom they must hate—for no man can be a right good partisan unless he be a determined and thoroughgoing hater.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

But when the sovereign people are thus properly broken to the harness, yoked, curbed and reined, it is delectable to see with what docility and harmony they jog onward through mud and mire, at the will of their drivers, dragging the dirt carts of faction at their heels. How many a patriotic member of congress have I seen who would never have known how to make up his mind on any question, and might have run a great risk of voting right by mere accident, had he not had others to think for him and a file leader to vote after.

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A cunning politician is often found sculking under the clerical robe, with an outside all religion and an inside all political rancor. Things spiritual and things temporal are strangely jumbled together, like poisons and antidotes on an apothecary’s shelf, and instead of a devout sermon, the simple church-going folk have often a political pamphlet thrust down their throats, labeled with a pious text from Scripture.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Charles Dickens Encyclopedia by Michael and Mollie Hardwick

This is what it sounds like, a encyclopedia of all things Charles Dickens. A summary of all his works, an alphabetical listing of all his characters with their descriptions, an alphabetical listing of all the places used in his fiction and their significance, a timeline of his life and the times he lived in, an alphabetical listing of all the people who impacted his life and how. I didn’t read it straight through. Only four pages a night while I was reading other things. I do that sometimes. No one knows why.

Thursday, September 7, 2006

Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison

I had this book in my hand at the used book store. I almost bought it with the gift certificate I had been given. But I finally decided against it and went with The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt instead. So when I saw it in the audiobook section of the public library, I said, hey, great, I’ll give that a try. I am so sorry I did. Let me try to explain.

Ralph Ellison’s first novel was Invisible Man, which I remember reading, and don’t remember much else about except that I found it somewhat tedious and dull. Juneteenth is his second and only other novel, which he spent the last forty years of his life writing and never truly finished. He worked and reworked the text countless times, constantly striving to make it perfect, to make it the perfect reflection of his indescribable thoughts about the history of race in America. This beautiful, creative, intelligent man, spent forty years of his life writing this novel, and it now resides in the illustrious position in my library as the only book I ever started and could not finish. My god, I consider it an achievement just getting through Chapter 2. Hey, Ralph. Next time, try to limit yourself to two drafts. Jeesh.

Sunday, September 3, 2006

Pay It Forward by Catherine Ryan Hyde

I wrote so much about The Harlot by the Side of the Road and it’s been so long since I’ve had a chance to write here that I read another whole book in the interim. I wish I could say that I enjoyed it as much as the last one, but alas, I did not. I’m reluctant to cast the first stone on this kind of thing, but I think Hyde forgot that Reuben’s face was scarred about halfway through the book. It stopped coming up as a dramatic element and people who met him for the first time didn’t recoil or even mention it at all. And Reuben is black? And Arlene is white? So why did they ask Kevin Spacey to play Reuben in the movie? Thanks for the confidence, Hollywood. Guess we’re not ready for interracial love, huh?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Harlot by the Side of the Road by Jonathan Kirsch

Okay. Get ready for this.

The theological revisionism that we find within the pages of the Bible is probably the work of priests and scribes who lived around the time of King Josiah, a distant descendant of David and a fierce religious reformer of ancient Israel. In 622 B.C.E., a book of sacred law mysteriously turned up in the Temple at Jerusalem; it was the Book of Deuteronomy, according to recent Bible scholarship, or at least a significant chunk of it. Deuteronomy embodied a new and stern theology that blames all of the woes of ancient Israel on the breach of God’s covenant with Moses. By worshipping strange gods and goddesses, thereby defying the “statutes and ordinances” of divine law, the author of Deuteronomy declares, the Israelites will forfeit the blessings that God promised to his Chosen People and, instead, call down upon themselves the curses that are set forth at length and in bloodcurdling detail in the Book of Deuteronomy.

“I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse,” says Moses in Deuteronomy. “Therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and they seed” (Deut. 30:19).

Significantly, the influence of the Deuteronomist can be detected in several other books of the Bible: Joshua, Judges, First and Second Samuel, and First and Second Kings, all of which are known among scholars as the Deuteronomistic History. And the Deuteronomist displays a none-too-subtle agenda throughout these several books of the Bible: he too seeks to validate the royal house of David as the legitimate rulers of Israel, but he also seeks to explain the unhappy destiny of Israel by blaming various of David’s descendants for committing “abominations” in violation of God’s law. One king after another “did that which was evil in the eyes of the Lord,” the Deuteronomist insists, and that is why God withdrew his blessing from his Chosen People.

The sorry and squalid history of the descendants of King David gives the Deuteronomist much to complain about. David is not faultless, as we have seen, and Solomon commits the ultimate sin of worshipping pagan gods and goddesses. All but one of David’s descendants are found wanting by the Deuteronomist in one way or another. Only a single Davidic monarch is singled out for unqualified praise—King Josiah, a white-hot religious reformer who transformed the religious practices of ancient Israel in the early seventh century B.C.E. Until Josiah came along, and the Book of Deuteronomy was discovered, the religious practices of ancient Israel encompassed the worship of Baal and Asherah, the adoration of the sun and the moon and the stars, even the sacrifice of children to the god known as Moloch (2 Kings 23). To the joy of the Deuteronomist, Josiah vows to purge the nation of Israel of all but the strictest form of worship.

Josiah has been characterized by some contemporary critics as Davidus redivivus—a resurrected David—and the otherwise obscure king is praised even more lavishly than David by the biblical authors because of his efforts to purify the faith of ancient Israel. King Josiah is credited with purging the Temple of paraphernalia for the worship of Baal and Asherah, pulling down “the houses of the sodomites” where women were put to work at making such paraphernalia, suppressing the worship of pagan gods and goddesses at the altars and “high places” in Jerusalem and elsewhere around ancient Israel, slaying the renegade priests who presided over such ceremonies, and burying the sites of pagan worship under “the bones of men” (2 Kings 23:4-20). For his efforts, King Josiah is described with a fervor that the Deuteronomist reserves for only one other man in all of the Bible—the prophet and lawgiver, Moses.

“And like unto him was there no king before him,” the biblical author writes of Josiah, echoing the very words and phrases that are used to describe Moses, “that turned to the Lord with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him” (2 Kings 23:25).

Because Josiah alone enjoys such unreserved adulation, contemporary biblical scholarship suggests that the books of the Bible known as the Deuteronomistic History were first composed while Josiah sat upon the throne. Indeed, the Book of Deuteronomy itself has been called a “pious fraud” because the book is presented as one of the Five Books of Moses—“These are the words which Moses spoke unto all Israel beyond the Jordan” (Deut. 1:1)—when Deuteronomy was obviously composed by a different (and later) author than the ones who composed the other four books. The authors of the Deuteronomistic History lionized King Josiah, the otherwise obscure monarch under whom they lived and worked, because they endorsed his policy of centralizing and standardizing the worship of Yahweh to the exclusion of the other gods and goddesses that the Israelites seemed to find so alluring.

So the Bible, as we know it, preserved a snapshot of the court politics and the theological priorities at a single moment in the long history of ancient Israel. But the doing of “that which was evil in the sight of the Lord” by the Israelites and the monarchs who ruled them does not end with Josiah. The kings that come after Josiah are no better than the ones that came before him, according to the author of the Book of Kings, and the Davidic line comes to a final and sorrowful end with the Babylonian Conquest and the destruction of the Temple. As it turns out, no descendant of David will take the throne again. So the biblical authors find themselves with an awkward question to answer: If God has promised King David that his descendants will sit on the throne of Judah “for ever,” when and how will God’s promise be kept?

This is an incredible book, the first, I think, I have ever read written with the unabashed perspective that the Bible is not the holy writ of God but a hobbling together of ancient Hebrew folklore and political tracts, no more divine than the works of Shakespeare or Milton. That makes it worth reading in and of itself, but its joys go far beyond that. A collection of stories from the Bible that no God-fearing believer wants to admit are in there, it goes on through their retelling and critical analysis to make the case that just as the stories of goodness and selflessness in the Bible to teach us something, these stories about incest, rape and mass murder are there to teach us something, too, and it is to our own detriment to not heed their warnings.

The most compelling story, I think, is the one about the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34). Briefly, Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, is raped by Shechem, a princely Canaanite suitor, who then begs for her hand in marriage. The bride-price, demanded by her borthers, is the circumcision of every man in Shechem’s kingdom. After the ritual is carried out, the weakened Canaanites—recovering from their ordeal—are easy targets for Dinah’s brothers who kill them all, much to the dismay of Jacob.

At the first house they encountered, Simeon and Levi unsheathed their swords and shouldered open the door with a loud crack that awakened only a pair of servant girls who were bedded down on the floor near the stove. The girls looked up, bleary and confused, as Simeon and Levi stalked past them in search of the room where the master of the house slept. As soon as the kitchen girls noticed the swords Simeon and Levi were carrying, they began to wail. And so, when Levi finally found a man with a black beard on a pile of bedding in a back room, the poor soul was already awake and alert as Levi dispatched him with one short blow to the neck.

The same brutal operation was repeated in dwelling after dwelling, tent and shack and house, as Simeon and Levi stalked through the streets of Hamor’s town and methodically did their work. They were shepherds, and they knew how to dispatch a living creature swiftly and efficiently. Now they put their expertise to a new use, although they held their victims in somewhat less regard than they would a beast being slaughtered for their table.

Now and then, one of the men of Hamor rose from his bed and seized a staff or a sword in a desperate attempt at self-defense, but two armed men on their feet were always more than a match for some bedridden soul whose private parts were bloody and bandaged. By sunrise, they had slain all but two of the newly circumcised men in the town, and the last house they visited belonged to Hamor and Shechem, who were awake and astir but unsuspecting, still lingering in their beds and waiting to be called to breakfast by one of the servants.

Hamor half-rose in his bed when he saw Simeon and Levi at the threshold, but they reached him before he could cry out, and a single blow with the cutting edge of a sword across the neck silenced him forever. Shechem appeared behind them, bellowing like a bull, but no one but the servants was left to hear the sound. With another strike of the blade, Shechem, too, was dead.

Blood-splattered and breathing heavily, Simeon and Levi searched the house from room to room until they found Dinah in the richly decorated bedchamber that had been set aside for her until her wedding day. Their sister stared at them with an expression of horror that they had never seen before, not even on the faces of their victims and the bystanders who had witnessed the slaughter.

“Come, sister,” said Simeon, taking her by the arm and leading her toward the door of the house, “we are here to take you home.”

That’s from Kirsch’s retelling of the biblical tale, which he’s based on ancient rabbinical sources that provide much more detail than what has come down through the ages in the Bible.

When Simeon and Levi return to their father, Jacob is horrified by what they have done, knowing that the people they have slain are from a nation far more populous than their own, and that the sons have likely brought a final retribution down upon their heads. Their response to Jacob’s outrage is the simple and direct, “What would you want us to do? Should our sister be treated as a whore?” Kirsch quite interestingly draws the parallel between these two schools of thought—to bend in the face of outrage to help keep good relations and to strike back with greater outrage when outrage is visited upon you—with the two, and often conflicting, essential lessons of the Bible, as well as the two arcs of modern Israeli foreign policy. And in doing so he equates nations with people when it comes to dealing with strangers.

The other stories in the book are just as interesting an bear repeating:

Lot and his daughters (Gen. 19:30-38). Having narrowly escaped the carnage brought down on Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his two daughters face the possibility that they are the last survivors on earth. In order to insure the continuation of their race, the two girls ply their father with wine and couple with him while he’s in a drunken stupor.

Tamar and Judah (Gen. 38). Tamar, a Canaanite widow of an Israelite, is involved in a failed “levirate marriage”—a custom that obliges a man to impregnate his dead brother’s widow if the brother dies without a male heir. Since her brother-in-law has failed to sire the child who has been promised her, she positions herself at the side of a road, disguised as a harlot, to seduce—and be impregnated by—her father-in-law, Judah.

What’s most interesting about these two stories is that the children born from these incestuous relationships are part of the Messianic line from Adam to Jesus. In fact, in both cases, if the women in the story had not taken it upon themselves to violate sexual taboos and conceive a child, Jesus might never have been born. At least that’s the argument Kirsch offers and, in part, he’s right because of the huge deal the Bible and the God that resides within it makes about the bloodline running from Adam through Noah, Lot, Judah, Abraham, Moses, David and eventually to Jesus. But on the other hand, if these women had done what other parts of the Bible tell them to do and not slept with their male relatives, I suppose God the Father would have just picked another virgin to impregnate with his seed.

Zipporah and Moses (Exod. 4:24-26). Moses, his wife, Zipporah, and their son Gershom are camped at an oasis while en route to Egypt. In the middle of the night, God (Yahweh) appears and attacks Moses. Zipporah uses the blood ritual of circumcision to defend her husband and son.

This one is really interesting. Kirsch believes it may be a fragment of a much older folktale, one in which Yahweh is more of the trickster god, not God the Father we have all been taught to believe in. I wish I could remember the name of that author I heard about on NPR, the one who wrote the book talking about the four different personalities of God contained in the Bible, one of which was a trickster like Loki in Norse mythology or some of the animal spirits in Native American cultures. Why this fragment is in the Bible at all is an even greater mystery.

Jephthah and his daughter (Judg. 11). Jephthah, a mercenary, is asked to lead the armies of Israel against an invading force from a neighboring kingdom. He accepts the offer and impulsively promises God that, in exchange for victory, he will sacrifice whoever first comes out of his house to greet him on his return from battle. He emerges victorious from the conflict but, to his horror, has no choice other than to sacrifice his only daughter to fulfill his vow. She goes willingly to the slaughter, but only after taking two months to go to the mountains with her friends and “bewail her virginity.”

This can be viewed as a retelling of the Abraham and Jacob story, but this time God does not stay the hand of the father in the slaying of his child.

And there's more evidence that the God of the Bible may not always be the God we have been taught to think of. This story seems like a prime example of Yahweh as interpreted by that guy from NPR, the god who is where he wants to be and not where he doesn’t want to be. By the way, my curiosity got the better of me the other night and I went on the NPR website and tracked down that guy and his book. His name is Harold Bloom and his book is Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine. I ordered it off Amazon.com. We’ll see how long it takes me to get to it.

The Traveler and his concubine (Judg. 19-21). A traveling Levite and his concubine are forced by a storm to seek shelter in the town of Gibeah. They are taken in by a countryman and his daughter. The men of Gibeah—members of the tribe of Benjamin—surround the house in the night and demand the Levite be sent outside so that they might sodomize him. Instead, the Levite and his host offer up the concubine and the host’s daughter to satisfy the mob. The concubine is gang-raped to death. The Levite brings her body home, dismembers it, and sends the pieces to the four corners of Israel in the hope of inciting a war of revenge against the tribe whose men killed her.

Another retelling of another tale from earlier in the Bible, the one of Lot who offers up his daughters for the sexual appetites of an angry mob, but this time there aren’t any angels to keep the women safe. And, according to Kirsch, the ugliness and brutality captured in this tale are only a precursor for what’s to come when the war it prompts gets into full swing.

Tamar and Amnon (2 Sam. 13). After a sordid affair with Bathsheba, King David arranges for the death of her husband so that he might marry her. Shortly thereafter Amnon, David’s oldest son and heir apparent to the throne of Israel, falls desperately in love with his half sister, Tamar. Amnon feigns illness and asks the king to send Tamar to nurse him back to health. When she arrives, he rapes her and throws her out in the street. King David hears about this outrage but does nothing.

What’s most interesting about the story of David told in First and Second Samuel is how it evidently differs from the same story told in First and Second Chronicles, which Kirsch says contains a cleaned-up version of the story, which show this King of Israel in a much more favorable light. It’s puzzling, however. Why include both stories in the Bible? Why not make the nasty one apocryphal? When were they each written? And when was it decided that they would be included in the Bible? If I had more free time, this might actually be something I would pursue, trying to piece together the pieces of the Bible and how they came to be there.

The whole situation reminds me of the website I stumbled across when I was looking for a Bible verse to use in my novel, the one that presented the argument that the very structure and order of the books of the Bible were a divine creation worthy of our awe and wonderment. Look! The books of the Bible rotate like celestial clockwork around this wheel of God’s creation, creating multiple triads of three books from different parts of the Bible, with each triad intimately related to one another. Does that look like God’s design to you? Knowing what I think I do about how the different parts of the Bible were written over centuries and carefully pulled together, looks more like the design of obsessively compulsive humans, trying to justify their own importance and the importance of the God they had created.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

The latest audiobook, and in many ways not what I expected. It’s a complex novel that seems to wrestle with the existence of God and the Devil in its clinical approach to the subject of possession. It does everything to convince you that possession is a mental illness, or at least fill you with enough doubt over the question of whether possession is the result of demons invading our bodies or sickness invading our minds that you don’t know what to think about it. And maybe that’s the point. Reagan’s mother, Chris, after all, is an avowed atheist, and it is ultimately she who demands that the church perform an exorcism on her daughter. Whether it is a demon that needs to be driven out or a psychological trick like the one Reagan supposedly played on herself, that no longer matters to Chris. Saved or cured, it doesn’t matter. She just wants her daughter back. But it ultimately fails for me because it doesn’t come down on one side or the other. At the end you still don’t know what brought on the possession, nor even exactly what Father Karras did to end it, and that is particularly unsatisfying.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Pendergast! by Lawrence H. Larsen and Nancy J. Hulston

A biography of Thomas J. Pendergast, the political machine boss who ran Kansas City, Missouri, in the 1930s and 1940s. Here’s the most interesting part:

In addition to Marceline, Tom Jr., and Aileen, a fourth child, Margaret Ann, lived with the Pendergasts. Carolyn claimed her as her half-sister. Margaret Ann, who went by the last name of Morton, was older than the three Pendergast children but twenty-four years younger than Carolyn. Growing up in the home, but never quite treated like a genuine family member, she always suspected that Carolyn was actually her real mother. Whenever the Pendergasts went on vacation, she was left behind. Margaret Ann “always felt something was wrong,” as she could not accept the difference between her age and the age of her half-sister, whom she called Carrie. In 1966, a private investigator hired by Tom Jr. said of Margaret Ann, “When she grew older, she wondered about it and tried to learn something about the death of her mother and father but Carrie wouldn’t tell her. She feared to ask any of the others.”

Margaret Ann remembered being with Carrie up in the attic of the Pendergast home at 5400 Wyandotte Street when she was a little girl. Margaret Ann was looking through what she called “some junk stored up there in boxes” when she found a document showing that sister Carrie had been married to and divorced from a man before she married T.J. Pendergast. “I never got to ask about it,” she said, “because Carrie saw what I was doing, snatched the paper out of my hands and bawled me out for meddling in other people’s business. She was awful angry. I never saw that paper again. I didn’t look for it either. I was afraid to.” Several years later, as a high school student, a friend told her that he had overheard someone say that she was really Carrie’s daughter. She mentioned this to Carrie “and got a good licking for it.”

As a teenager, Margaret Ann, after a quarrel, was sent to live with Carolyn’s brother, Luke Dunn. Never to return to the Pendergast household, she eventually married and moved to California. Many decades later, the private investigator hired by Tom Jr. located her. The subsequent investigation left little doubt that Margaret Ann was, in reality, Carolyn’s own daughter, father unknown, born prior to her marriage to Tom Pendergast.

Makes me wonder about the lives people lead, the secrets they keep, the lies they tell themselves to conceal them and the things they will do to keep them buried. Makes me also wonder about the power of social morals and taboos, the things people will do under their oppressive influence, and the things they might do different if they were not in place.

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

What is it about Fitzgerald? I mean, this one wasn’t particularly good, but there are flashes of brilliance throughout the prose. And the descriptions of how people relate to one another are spot on.

Who’s story is this? First you think it’s Rosemary’s, a young movie star on vacation in the south of France, who meets and falls in love with a thirty-something married doctor, Dick Divers. Then you think it’s Dick’s, whose wife, Nicole, was a former mental patient of his, under treatment for a breakdown after her father sexually abused her. (Did I read that? Is that what happened to Nicole? Or did I dream that up on my own. When stuff like that happens in books written before 1950 it’s never very explicit and sometimes it’s hard to remember.) And then you think it’s Nicole’s story, who has grown beyond her need for Dick and has an affair with someone who’s always been waiting in the wings for her. And a couple times Fitzgerald compares Dick to Grant, and he returns to it in the very last chapter, characterizing him as someone called out of obscurity to do great things but then returned to obscurity in Galena and forgotten about.

But as I said before, the way people are described interacting with one another—the young and inexperienced girl falling in love for the first time, the experienced professional essentially deciding to take her after her numerous advances, the wife moving on to a new lover when there’s nothing else for her to do, the lover thinking he has conquered something when in fact he’s had very little to do with it—it’s all so well told and so real, how they feel and how they think and how what they do is just a natural by-product of the other two. Makes me want to read it again.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

John Adams by David McCullough

Someday I need to pull this one down off the shelf and re-read the section on Adams’ first trip across the Atlantic on the Boston with his son, John Quincy. Then I need to research it some more. Then I need to write about it. Write about it like my story about TR and Kermit on the River of Doubt, except I don’t think this one is a story. This one might be a novel. I know this is a book about John Adams, but looking back on the experience of reading it, one of the strongest indelible impressions it has left me with is of Thomas Jefferson, and what an insufferable hypocrite he must have been. He constantly said one thing and did another. Was he great because of that or in spite of that?

Saturday, July 8, 2006

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The latest audiobook and one that my wife has never heard of. What? I cried. This is one of the most famous science fiction books of all time. It was enjoyable on so many levels and disappointing on so many others. It was fun and entertaining, but I guess I prefer my fiction to take itself seriously and try to find some truth rather than just making fun of it all. And are you sure Douglas Adams isn’t a pen name for Michael Palin or John Cleese or one of the other Monty Python guys? Maybe it was the English accent of the guy reading it, but the whole thing sounded like a shallow imitation of a Monty Python skit. I mean, it had everything but the bloody spam.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

O. Henry Awards - Prize Stories 1989

My story ‘Peacocks’ became part of a novel, Winterchill, which made me realize another possibility for the short story form—chains of stories, where each sets up reverberations against the other, where what isn’t said in the space between each story is almost as important as what is said within the stories’ boundaries. I’m not the first to discover that, of course, but happening upon it, because of those demands my characters set upon me, turned out to be a great release.
Ernest J. Finney

Finney took first prize in the 1989 O. Henry Awards for short stories, and I read his story ‘Peacocks’ in this compilation of all the prize winning stories from that year. My favorite was ‘The Watch’ by Rick Bass, not because of the subject matter but because of the prose. I think I’ll find what else he wrote and get it. Other tidbits:

Art is to reality as wine is to grapes.

…kissing someone is actually sucking on a long tube the other end of which is full of shit.
David Foster Wallace, Here and There

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin

A decent audio book that was fun to listen to. A little far-fetched, but hey, what’s a few Adolf Hitlers among friends. I’m sorry, even if there were 94 genetic duplicates of Hitler growing up in the 1970s, I think the odds of one of them becoming a monster like Hitler would be pretty slim. To argue otherwise is to argue that what made Hitler the monster he was were his genes and the fact that his father died when he was 13. There may have been more to it than that. Like, oh, I don’t know. How about getting elected Chancellor of Germany? Without that, how many Jews could he really have killed? It was still a fun read. Do you like the apples?

Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The devil holds equal dominion over humanity until a date in the far-off future still unknown to us. You’re laughing? You don’t believe in the devil? Disbelief in the devil is a French idea. It is a flippant idea. Do you know who the devil is? Do you know what his name is? Not knowing even his name, you laugh at his exterior form, following the example of Voltaire, at his hoofs, his tail, and horns, which you have invented yourselves, for the evil spirit is a great and ruthless spirit, but he has not the hoofs and horns you have invented for him.

Slugging my way through another piece of Russian literature. Why? Because it came up in the rotation. I’ve got to stop putting them in there, But then, occasionally I come across an idea like the one captured above. The idea that evil does exist in the world, but not in the form we have been taught and in the form we wished we could see it. The devil, according to Lebedev, is not the red creature with horns and hoofs, but is in fact the very heart of man. That’s worth remembering, but is it worth the weeks it takes me to get through the rest of the novel?

Let me add, however, that in every idea of genius or in every new human idea, or, more simply still, in every serious human idea born in anyone’s brain, there is something that cannot possibly be conveyed to others, though you wrote volumes about it and spent thirty-five years explaining your idea; something will always be left that will obstinately refuse to emerge from your head and that will remain with you forever; and you will die without having conveyed to anyone what is perhaps the most vital point of your idea.

Thirty-nine days. It took me thirty-nine days to read The Idiot and now it’s done. Was it worth it? Well, the main character, the idiot, Prince Myshkin, he was kind of interesting. As an idiot, he was clueless as to all the motivations of others and complex relationships that existed around him. He laughed when they laughed, but never really got the joke, nor realized that it was often on him. It was kind of fun to watch others try to deal with him and expect him to act like a normal person.

But the best character was probably Ippolit, the 18-year-old who was dying of tuberculosis and who saw everything different from those around him. His “explanation” in Part III is worth reading again. Speaking of his death and perhaps the heavenly deity that has organized and demanded it to serve His greater purpose, “Can’t I simply be devoured without being expected to praise that which has devoured me?”

Don’t let us forget that the motives of human actions are usually infinitely more complex and varied than we are apt to explain them afterwards, and can rarely be defined with certainty. It is sometimes much better for a writer to content himself with a simple narrative of events.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Boone’s Lick by Larry McMurtry

The latest audiobook and an enjoyable one. I don’t think I’ll get the hard copy, but I’ll certainly get more McMurtry. Interesting thought at the end, when the narrator is looking back on the events of the story after many years, trying to make sense out of the events and the motivations of the people who created them.

Did Ma always prefer Uncle Seth to Pa? Did Pa wander the West for years hoping his brother would relieve him of his outspoken wife? Did Uncle Seth mean from the first to steal his brother’s wife? Did they all three know what they were doing, or half know, or just blunder on? I’ve pondered the matter for many years, but I confess I still can’t phrase it out tidily like you need to do with cases in the courts of law.

This seems to me a nice summary of both life and fiction. In life, do we all know what we’re doing, do we half know, or are we just blundering on? And the same in writing fiction. I don’t know about others, but in both categories I know what it mostly feels like I’m doing.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

I paid attention while I read this book. I wanted to see if Brown was going to take sides in the explosive controversy he plays with in this bestseller. I don’t think he did. A character or two at a time or two got a little preachy or a little defiant, but I don’t think Brown did. He played it right down the middle, ending his novel with the mystery intact and leaving it up to the reader to decide what’s right.

What shocked me the most was the revelation that Christ’s divinity was voted on and decided by Constantine and the early church leaders in the 300s. If true, this seems to me like the real bombshell of the book, not if Mary Magdalene was Christ’s wife and bore his child. But I have a couple of questions for those who are part of the secret society protecting that secret. Why are you keeping it a secret? Five hundred years ago the church was burning people at the stake, but now they can’t even keep their own priests from molesting children. What’s the holdup? You got the evidence? Let’s see it. And here’s another. If you believe that Christ was married and had a child, does that mean that you do or do not believe Christ was the Son of God? In all your talk about the sacred feminine I got lost as to who you were worshipping. You’re not worshipping Mary Magdalene, are you? I really like the idea that the early church stole a lot of pagan imagery and rituals to help transition people to the religion they had just created. I hope that’s true.

Saturday, April 8, 2006

Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life by Donald C. Pfanz

Ewell has been much maligned, of course, for not taking Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg, the way Jackson surely would have and, of course, his biographer finds fault with that analysis and presents Ewell as one of the better generals on either side in that war. And that makes me wonder. Is that a natural byproduct of biography, that writing about someone in that way makes you write the best about them, or is that a natural byproduct of history, that mistaken impressions get enshrined in hearts and minds and become fact to all but those who take the time to assemble the actual pieces?

It’s an interesting question, and Ewell presents and interesting case study on which to test it. He shone under Jackson in the Valley, and after Stonewall died and Ewell was given the Second Corps, he showed his aggressiveness and ability by chasing Union forces out of his way on the march into Pennsylvania. Gettysburg was a mixed bag for the Confederates in so many more ways than just Ewell’s failure to take a hill that probably no one else—including Jackson—could have taken. And after Gettysburg Ewell began to shine again, especially in the smaller battles against Meade throughout 1863 and at the Wilderness in 1864. And then came Spotsylvania, when it was Ewell in the Mule Shoe and the Southern army was beginning to disintegrate. Lee lost confidence in Ewell after the Wilderness, but more on the basis of what others had reported to him and less on what he had observed with his own eyes, and replaced him shortly thereafter. It’s a compelling story about someone who had the fortunes of war and history work against him. But how much of it is true and how much is Pfanz’s interpretation?

When I’m looking for a new story idea I should go back and read page 424 about the two companies of black troops the Confederacy raised, but who never saw any action because Richmond fell into Union hands while they were still drilling, “and the companies dissolved in the chaos surrounding the city’s last hours.” Who were these men, these black soldiers who were being trained to fight for the South? Who were they fighting for? What were they hoping for?

I really enjoyed this biography of Ewell more than I thought I would. Makes me want to read biographies of other corps commanders from the Civil War. Hancock might be next. Men who haven’t been elevated to godhood the way Jackson and Grant have, but real men with flaws who did and saw a lot in their lives and in those four years.

Surgeons removed Ewell’s left leg above the knee at 2:00 PM that afternoon. In contrast to his attitude the previous evening, Ewell initially opposed the operation, having been informed by one physician that the limb could be saved. “Tell the [expletive] doctor that I’ll be [expletive] if it shall be cut off, and that these are the last words of Ewell,” he supposedly swore in a moment of passion. Ultimately reason prevailed, however, and the operation took place as planned. McGuire performed the surgery, assisted by the chief medical officer of Ewell’s division, Dr. Samuel B. Morrison, and Dr. William A. Roberson of the Sixth Louisiana Infantry. McGuire amputated the leg just above the knee, working as rapidly as possible in order to minimize the loss of blood. Throughout the operation Ewell muttered orders to troops and spoke hurriedly of their movements. He seemed unconscious of pain until McGuire sawed into to bone, when he threw up his arms and groaned, “Oh, My God!”

To remove any doubt that the amputation had been necessary, Robertson took Campbell Brown aside after the operation and in his presence cut open the amputated limb along the track of the bullet. “When the leg was opened,” remembered Brown, “we found the knee cap split half in two, the head of the tibia knocked into several pieces, and that the ball had followed the marrow of the bone for six inches breaking the bone itself into small splinters, and finally had split into two pieces on a sharp edge of bone. These pieces I took out and gave to my Mother, but have always avoided letting the General know that I had them.” Brown and a servant, John Frame, wrapped the bloody limb in an oil cloth and buried it in a corner of Buckner’s garden.

Why did this passage affect me? I don’t know. It says something about the tribulations people faced back then and the way that they faced them. It is both unbelievable that people would react so and at the same time it is perfectly understandable. The circumstance is so horrific and alien to us now, having your leg sawed off without any anesthetic, but their reaction to it is so human and predictable. If I lost my leg would I not also figure our a way to get back up on my horse and lead my troops into battle?

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Problems and Other Stories by John Updike

These aren’t stories. They’re sketches. I had to read half a dozen of them or so before I figured that out. At first, I was upset. Who does this Updike think he is, passing his sketches off as stories? Making us look in futility for the plot, the point, the moral. But then I realized that this was the kind of writing I should do more of. Sure, Updike is a famous author so he can publish his writing exercises, call them stories, and keep that income and those accolades rolling in. But just because I can’t get away with that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t exercise my craft this way. And these are pretty good sketches. They all (or most) seem to be about marriages breaking up or infidelity, but they’re all tight and exist well within themselves. They don’t seem to be about much and nothing seems to happen in them, except that the characters think, act and interact based on a premise. Nothing has to happen, so the author has a certain amount of freedom to start or end anywhere. My current project is the exact opposite. At times it seems like so much has to happen that it’ll never get done. Perhaps I should break away from time to time and just write a little sketch about A and B in situation C. Would I be able to? Or will I helplessly want to make it say something more?

Thursday, March 9, 2006

The Plot Against Asthma and Allergy Patients by Felix Ravikovich

According to this tome, asthma, allergies, migraine and chronic fatigue syndrome are curable, but the cure is hidden from the patients. The cure is histamine, the same substance whose release from mast cells cause allergy symptoms. But in the right amount it stimulates the receptors that release another substance that naturally curtails the histamine spills and brings balance back to the immune system. This truth is hidden by the pharmaceutical industry and their willing allies in the medical establishment because they don’t want a cheap cure to come along and wipe out their immense profits from drugs designed to be taken daily and forever to manage symptoms. Is any of this true? Who knows? The scariest part is that about the side effects of steroids taken to manage asthma and allergy symptoms. They essentially destroy the body’s natural immune system and make the patient dependent on them forever. More evidence for the conspiracy-minded.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan

This audiobook kept my interest well enough, but it's nothing I would sit through again. The main character, Ruth, is a self-doubting, self-obsessed, self-bemoaning little wretch who isn’t happy with anything in her life or the forces beyond her control that are affecting it until she reads a forgotten manuscript written by her mother about her own life growing up in China. Then, everything connects and Ruth is happy and confident, writing her own stories instead of ghostwriting books for others.

Ruth isn’t the titular bonesetter’s daughter. Neither is Liu Ling, Ruth’s mother. The bonesetter’s daughter is Ruth’s grandmother, whose life is filled with tragedy and heartbreak, and who kills herself rather than see her daughter married off to her enemies. Hers is a woeful tale, so different than the luxury and comfort that Ruth lives in and complains about, depressing and unbelievable all at the same time. Looking back on it, I realize there were several times I nearly gave up on the book. If it wasn’t Ruth’s unquenchable angst (Let’s go out for pizza? I wonder what he meant by that? Doesn’t he like my cooking? Is he having an affair?) it was her mother’s tale of poverty and betrayal in backwater China. If it wasn’t for my pledge to finish whatever I start, I probably would have moved on after the third tape.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Shades of Blue and Gray: An Introductory Military History of the Civil War by Herman Hattaway

The entire war in 281 pages makes for a quick and sometimes enjoyable read, but I sometimes felt at a loss to explain why this was a military history. Some stuff at the beginning about the advancing weaponry and the tactics that lagged behind, and some stuff at the end about the establishment of a professional military class, but in between it seemed more like a quick tour of all the battlefields. One point that sticks with me is how early in the war it was considered cowardly to entrench, and how by late in the war the contest had become one of who could out-entrench the other. There were no trenches at Shiloh, for example, but the men who held and those who tried to take the sunken road began to see how important entrenchments could be. Maybe the best part of the book is the extensive list of suggested reading, with brief comments offered on each title. Maybe someday I’ll go back and try to read every one.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Shiloh by Larry J. Daniel

The subtitle is “The Battle That Changed the Civil War,” and the author argues that this is the case since no one after Shiloh thought the war would be a thirty-day fight. It’s another one of those battle histories in which the movements of every unit at every moment is described and mapped, another one of those battle histories that I’m becoming less and less interested in. Forgive me, sometimes they get so far down into the details that I lose track of which units are Federal and which are Confederate. Two ways of looking at that. One. How can I ever hope to understand the war if I get lost on such a basic separation? Two. When all is said and one, does it really matter which are Federal and which are Confederate? The war taught them and should teach us that such artificial separations are what caused the war in the first place.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Virginian by Owen Wister

The Virginian looked on at this, silent and somber. He could scarcely interfere between another man and his own beast. Neither he nor Balaam was among those who say their prayers. Yet in this omission they were not equal. A half-great poet once had a wholly great day, and in that great day he was able to write a poem that has lived and become, with many, a household word. He called it The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And it is rich with many lines that possess the memory; but these are the golden ones:—

He prayeth well who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

These lines are pure gold. They are good to teach children; because after the children come to be men, they may believe at least some part of them still. The Virginian did not know them,—but his heart had taught him many things. I doubt if Balaam knew them either. But on him they would have been as pearls to swine.

This is an interesting little book. The father of all the Westerns and it’s easy to see why. It sets up the frontier morality of good versus evil that all subsequent westerns seem to embody. But it goes deeper than Hollywood usually does, exploring what happens when good must do evil in order to be good. I think my favorite part of the book are the two chapters, “Progress of the Lost Dog,” from which the above quote is taken, and, “Balaam and Pedro.” In many ways they seem to come out of nowhere, as many of the episodes of the book do, but together they comprise an engaging and tight little morality play about archetypal elements of human nature in conflict with one another.

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The cow-boys were told that not only they could do no good, but that if they did continue to, it would not help them. Nay, more, not only honest deeds availed them nothing, but even if they accepted this especial creed which was being explained to them as necessary for salvation, still it might not save them. Their sin was indeed the cause of their damnation, yet, keeping from sin, they might nevertheless be lost. It had all been settled for them not only before they were born, but before Adam was shaped. Having told them this, he invited them to glorify the Creator of the scheme. Even if damned, they must praise the person who had made them expressly for damnation.

Sometimes life is full of funny coincidences. The perfectly random elements that decide the order of books I read, brings this one and this little passage within it to my attention at the same time I’m trudging through Rick Warren’s treatise on the purpose of life (which had an even more random trajectory into my world). Thanks, Owen, for summing up my thoughts so well, even writing them as you did 103 years ago. Rick, how many people have been conned by your tired philosophy since Owen’s time?

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Judge Henry sat thinking, waiting until school should be out. He did not at all relish what lay before him. He would like to have got out of it. He had been a federal judge; he had been an upright judge; he had met the responsibilities of his difficult office not only with learning, which is desirable, but also with courage and common sense besides, and these are essential. He had been a staunch servant of the law. And now he was invited to defend that which, at first sight, nay, even at second and third sight, must always seem a defiance of the law more injurious than crime itself. Every good man in this world has convictions about right and wrong. They are his soul’s riches, his spiritual gold. When his conduct is at variance with these, he knows that it is a departure, a falling; and this is a simple and clear matter. If falling were all that ever happened to a good man, all his days would be a simple matter of striving and repentance. But it is not all. There come to him certain junctures, crises, when life, like a highwayman, springs upon him, demanding that he stand and deliver his convictions in the name of some righteous cause, bidding him do evil that good may come. I cannot say that I believe in doing evil that good may come. I do not. I think that any man who honestly justifies such a course deceived himself. But this I can say: to call any act evil, instantly begs the question. Many an act that man does is right or wrong according to the time and place which form, so to speak, its context; strip it of its particular circumstances, and you tear away its meaning. Gentlemen reformers, beware of this common practice of yours! Beware of calling an act evil on Tuesday because that same act was evil on Monday!

Do you fail to follow my meaning? Then here is an illustration. On Monday I walk over my neighbor’s field; there is no wrong in such walking. By Tuesday he has put up a sign that trespassers will be prosecuted according to law. I walk again on Tuesday, and am a law-breaker. Do you begin to see my point? Or are you inclined to object to the illustration because the walking on Tuesday was not wrong, but merely illegal? Then here is another illustration which you will find a trifle more embarrassing to answer. Consider carefully, let me beg you, the case of a young man and young woman who walk out of a door on Tuesday, pronounced man and wife by a third party inside the door. It matters not that on Monday they were, in their own hearts, sacredly vowed to each other. If they had omitted stepping inside that door, if they had dispensed with that third party, and gone away on Monday sacredly vowed to each other in their own hearts, you would have scarcely found their conduct moral. Consider these things carefully—the sign-post and the third party—and the difference they make, And now, for a finish, we will return to the sign-post.

Suppose that I went over my neighbor’s field on Tuesday, after the sign-post was put up, because I saw a murder about to be committed in the field, and therefore ran in and stopped it. Was I doing evil that good might come? Do you not think that to stay out and let the murder be done would have been the evil act in this case? To disobey the sign-post was right; and I trust that you now perceive the same act may wear as many different hues of right or wrong as the rainbow, according to the atmosphere in which it is done. It is not safe to say of any man, “He did evil that good might come.” Was the thing that he did, in the first place, evil? That is the question.

Forgive my asking you to use your mind. It is a thing which no novelist should expect of his reader, and we will go back at once to Judge Henry and his meditations about lynching.

Monday, January 2, 2006

Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley

The latest audiobook, and even though I still don’t know what Antic Hay means, I just may add this to my must read list. Huxley is such an interesting writer, capturing ideas and emotions on paper that I never even knew existed. My favorite character, by far, is Coleman, who is always on the lookout for the obscene and blasphemous, not because he is particularly vile himself, but because life is so stuffy and dull that only the obscene and blasphemous can get his attention. There’s one chapter (20, I think) in which Rosie is mistakenly led to thinking he is Gumbril, and they have an encounter that is truly memorable. Horrible, my dear. Simply horrible. I just tried to find the text online but was unsuccessful. Now I’ll have to read it again.

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Tried again. He's what I found on Wikipedia:

The title is from the play Edward II by Christopher Marlowe c1593. Act One, Scene One, "My men, like satyrs grazing on the lawn, shall with their goat feet dance an antic hay" which is quoted on the frontispiece. "Antic hay", here, refers to a playful dance.

Sunday, January 1, 2006

Magnetic North: The Landscapes of Tom Uttech by Margaret Andera

This is the exhibition book for an art exhibit that came to my local art museum a few years ago. I liked the exhibit a lot. I thought I would after seeing some of the advertising for it and I am really glad I went. The exhibit featured Uttech's landscape paintings from the last twenty years or so, landscapes inspired by his time spent in Northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park, landscapes that are dark and mysterious, painted in colors that only exist at sunrise or sunset or not at all, and featuring twisted shapes of rocks and trees and totemistic animals staring back at you as if to say that they know you are there.

My three favorites all feature bears, animals that Uttech said in one of the placards accompanying one of the paintings represented danger and mystery to him. As a boy he was always warned to be alert for bears when walking in the woods, so much so that they took on mythic properties, properties that were only reinforced for Uttech when he did encounter a bear and was confronted with its powerful presence.

The first is called Kawnipi Lightning Bugs, and shows a bear standing upright on a narrow ribbon of land between two bodies of water, at dusk with forked bolts of lightning illuminating the sky behind him. The second is Makwa Anamie Gagikwewin, which again shows a bear standing upright between two bodies of water, this time at sunrise on a clear day. What I like best about these paintings is the symbolism that perhaps I have given them. They both represent a portage, a place where you must get out of your canoe and carry it over land from one lake to the next. This journey, from one place to another, is attended by the danger and mystery that the bear represents, watching your approach and giving no indication of the best way forward with its blank face. Even though Kawnipi is more ominous in its use of color and shadow, I think I like this metaphor better in Makwa, since the portage itself is obscured by rocks and the way forward is even less clear.

It should be noted that Uttech began using Ojibwa Indian words to name these paintings early on, even though even he doesn’t know what all the Ojibwa words mean. I suppose that adds to the mysterious and primordial aura they all exude.

The third one I like is Wineboujou Gaie Manidog, which shows the back of a bear sitting in the water at the base of a tremendous waterfall, the water falling and crashing over rocks, one of which looks decidedly like a human face. It’s reverential in a way that’s hard to describe and one of the few paintings in the exhibit where you observe the animal without the animal observing you. It makes me wonder how often the bear comes to see this sight, this sight that we would otherwise never see because we don’t sit in rivers like that, how long he stays, and what his primitive brain chews on and understands that we cannot. The human face makes me think of toppled civilizations and worlds that existed before ours. The whole thing makes me think of places I will never see and the magic that may exist there without needing my knowing.

If I was filthy rich I would buy there three paintings and hang them in my sprawling cottage deep in the northwoods where I did most of my writing. Since I’m not filthy rich, I spent $30 on the official book of the exhibition.